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Understanding Overseas France for Genealogy

Researching a Ship's Doctor in France

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Inexplicably, we have received a number of e-missives from certain Dear Readers who all have an ancestor who claimed to be a "surgeon in the French navy" or a "naval doctor" or a "surgeon on a French frigate at Trafalgar". It is most unusual, we believe, to have a spate of surgeon's descendants surface. Yet, we are grateful for, in our attempts to give helpful replies, we have discovered some very interesting new research paths, supplemented by two well-timed talks

When researching French surgeons at sea, making the differentiation between the Navy and the Merchant Marine is as important as it is when researching sailors or seamen. The documentation and archival storage are in some way quite separate and the researcher has to bear that in mind. If you are researching a man who was a doctor, surgeon or pharmacist/chemist in the French Navy, your work has been done for you by the excellent team of archivist/authors at the Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) who produced the weighty tome, Dictionnaire des médecins, chirurgiens et pharmaciens de la Marine . The work is so thorough that, if your ancestor does not appear within, he almost certainly was not a surgeon inthe French Navy.

Thus, you must look in the scattered, incomplete, rarely online but wondrous records of the French Merchant Marine (Marine de commerce et de pêche). Recall that we wrote on a recent post about the French naval conscription:

The French Naval Class System, Le système de classes

It is clear that many outside of France are completely unaware of a key element of the French Navy, La Marine, and that is the fact that, since 1668, the Marine has had its own system of drafting men into service. As with other military draft systems, it was compulsory. Censuses were taken of all men aged eighteen or over who worked on any type of vessel or who worked with vessels or in ports in any capacity. (From this it can be seen that most of the men came from coastal areas, few were from inland regions.) Lists, called matricules, were made for each region each time the census was taken. All men listed during a particular census were in the same classe, which could be called up to serve at any time during war. The class system was devised to prevent (and is considered by the French to be infinitely superior to and more humane than) something like the British practice of impressing (or pressing) men into service in the Royal Navy. During times of peace, classes were not called up, but during times of war, many classes could be called up at the same time and the men possibly could be made to serve longer than the mandated year. In 1795, the classe system was renamed the maritime enrollment, inscription maritime, but functioned in much the same way throughout the nineteenth century.

When young men had to register, they did so within their Quartier Maritime, an administrative division under the Ministry of the Marine. Prior to the Revolution, the registration was handled by the Admiralty headquarters, les sièges d'Amirauté. These divisions or headquarters were usually in port cities such as Le Havre, Rouen, Lorient, Cherbourg, Bordeaux, Toulon, and many, many more. They handled the registration of merchant vessels and personnel, including surgeons.

Surgeons, to serve on a vessel, had to pass tests and receive certificates. Many of the register books showing this have survived and some are online. Those for Bordeaux, on the website of the Departmental Archives of Gironde include:

  • Registrations of Captains, surgeons and other officers, from 1699 to 1792 (Réceptions de capitaines de vaisseaux, chirurgiens, maîtres de barque, pilotes hauturiers, etc...)
  • Certificates delivered by approved Admiralty surgeons to new candidates, from 1711-1728 (Certificats délivrés par les chirurgiens de l'Amirauté de Guienne aux candidats chirurgiens de mer.)

Here is a screen print of one of the former, showing the entry for Pierre Lafargue, whose father trained him (a not uncommon occurrence).

Surgeons

For Le Havre and Rouen, the digitized registers are on the website of the Departmental Archives of Seine-Maritime. They have so much and the search is complicated. The easiest way to get to the register and to other interesting possibilities is to go to the "Recherche simple" search box and type in "chirurgiens" and you will see this wonderful book:

Le Havre surgeons

One can have a bit more fun and, on the AD Gironde website, see a register of the contents of the surgeons' chests as they were in 1786 (code 6 B 546): 

Surgeons' chests

 

 So, now you know not to despair if your "naval surgeon" ancestor is not in the Dictionnaire des mèdecins. If he lived near Le Havre or Bordeaux, you might find him registered as a "surgeon of the sea" with the merchant marine.

A small tip: Huguenots were not permitted to be surgeons during the Ancien régime (David Garrioch, The Huguenots of Paris and the Coming of Religious Freedom, 1685-1789, p. 159.) . So, if you find your man among surgeons, he was almost certainly a Catholic. Conversely, your Huguenot ancestor may have been a doctor but almost certainly could not practice in France.

Santé!

©2020 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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